For those of you who don’t know, Hampton Roads is a really tricky place to maneuver if you’re Queer. You have a huge accepting community and climate based in Norfolk, but then you go just 30 minutes out to Virginia Beach and you have folks who are polite and ‘inclusive’ when it comes to using words but would sooner turn their back on you when the chips are down.
That’s exactly what we saw from Cox High School and Virginia Beach City Public Schools when they pulled the rug out from under a joint Pride celebration between Cox High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance and Hampton Roads Pride. The event was scheduled for today, Monday, December 5th and would fill the fourth quarter of classes (roughly the last hour of the school day) with an assembly intended to educate and discuss with students the importance of recognizing, celebrating, and understanding different gender identities, sexualities etc. in a high school environment. So why would such a worthwhile program be delayed or cancelled by the school?
The event itself had already had a lengthy history, originating from an idea proposed by Cox’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) President nearly two years ago. The idea was that if understanding and education was shared among the student body, perhaps bullying regarding sexual orientation or gender might not occur as often as it has. As a little Queer kid from First Colonial High School, I can tell you this isn’t something that’s ‘faded away’. From teachers subtly sharing their disapproval of my ‘lifestyle’, to closeted teachers fearing for their professional careers, to students who think it’s fun to tease me in the locker room for ‘sneaking peaks at boy’s junk’, this stuff isn’t just in papers, plays and movies. This kind of LGBT discrimination is happening right here, at local high schools like Cox. The event was approved two weeks in advance for date, time, and location with Cox’s principal, Randi Riesbeck and was even celebrated as “the first of its kind” in an article on Friday. It was that article that began everything toppling down.
According to an update by The Virginian Pilot, Victoria Manning, a name worthy of infamy for being uttered in the same sentence as ‘public education’, sent an email expressing deep concern about the event. Manning, an incoming school board member, said, “…this is a controversial subject and I do not believe it is appropriate to hold a gay pride event during instructional time.”
Her email went on to say: “I fully support the gay club holding meetings after school but not during instructional time.”
That’s on the road to saying, “I don’t mind gay people, as long as they act straight in public, hold their meetings in the closet, and keep it out of my face.” Or at least that’s how it can feel to a young LGBT community like myself, who has been told so many times that my kind does not belong in the mainstream.
Cox High School offered this statement:
Student-led club meetings and events to raise awareness about their organization or area of interest should be scheduled after school in order to minimize the loss of instructional time. In this instance, it was simply a mistake to allow the club to move forward with planning its event during the school day. School administrators plan to meet with the student organizers Monday to discuss this matter further and apologize for the error.”
I had to mull this one over for a day to fully grasp the word-play and tom-foolery here. It goes to use some pretty positive words like ‘involve’, ‘variety’, ‘community groups’, and even ‘inclusion’ and ‘marginalize’, but something about it doesn’t ring true, especially when compared to the treatment of other events meant to celebrate institutionally marginalized communities.
When I was in high school, I remember almost always having a heavy history and writing lesson during Black History Month, a celebration of Black music, culture, and heritage. Now I’m sorry, but where was the school board asking for my concern as an excluded white student during this mandatory educational event during instruction time?
Obviously, I’m speaking sarcastically. Of course I didn’t ask anyone to make me feel included because, spoiler alert, I’m not Black. So when Black History Month comes around, I sat back and let my friends celebrate their identity and took in as much knowledge about it as I could. I had a friend who was a practicing Orthodox Jew growing up in High School, and you know when she wasn’t in school for holiday observances… never once did I wonder ‘now why isn’t the school making ME take a holiday’ or ‘why don’t they make her stay? I mean she IS in the minority.’
The sense of ‘inclusion’ at Cox High School, and the Virginia Beach Public School System is encouraging here, is a very common form of misguided inclusion called ‘erasure’ made popular in the form of #AllLivesMatter. The idea is, if we make everyone feel included then everyone feels the same and we are all equal. But we aren’t. Considering the size of Cox High School, there is an incredibly small minority of LGB identifying students, and even less Trans* students. Those students are not treated as equal. A majority of the students at most of our high schools are white or Christian. The Black and Jewish students are not equal. Now I know what Cox’s response is, “We’re talking about them, too; Black, Jewish, Minority students” we want to include the whole bundle. Well, that’s wrong as well.
Cox’s answer of postponing this event to make it ‘more inclusive’ is nothing more than a misdirection.
And the problem goes deeper than one assembly.
I say this as a person concerned with our future, and understanding of the difficulties our public school system faces. Our high school counselors are NOWHERE near prepared to handle dialogues and educational sessions of this size. Not even close. Organizations like The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities spend years learning, strategizing, studying, and developing methods to scrape the surface of these dialogues. They have been an incredible influence on different settings and communities in Hampton Roads. From their Inclusive Workplace Initiative to their High and Middle School tailored Emerging Leaders Institute, these folks are the real deal. They do so because they understand how much time, discussion, and fairness it takes to be intersectional with every element of oppression in a setting as volatile and formative as high school. All of our oppression and exclusion is related, yes, but it is unique to each and every one of our lived experiences.
Cox High School and Victoria Manning I leave you with this question.
Which future do you want to educate your students with, one where the minority need to give their identity for the benefit of the majority? Or one where true diversity is celebrated, learned, and understood among all?